Is a gap year worth it for a high school football player?

2020 has brought a plethora of unfortunate events around the world; most were caused by the pandemic. Sports have been impacted in a global scale: no Olympics, no Wimbledon, no Tour de France, closed doors sporting events, football leagues getting canceled/shortened, etc. From a football viewpoint specifically, the silver lining is that 2020 became an excellent year for young American football players as they have cemented American football credibility in front of an avid football watching world.

Weston Mckennie, Barcelona (0) Juventus (3), Barcelona, Spain (12.08.20)

Young American players continue to become very attractive investments for European clubs. Back in the US, that enhanced credibility has had a ripple effect on domestic clubs, coaches, scouts, agents, and specifically high-school-age football players. Now more than ever, they all see a new opportunity. Young footballers with European playing aspirations, vehemently believe their dream of becoming a professional player is within realistic reach. Similarly, fringe high-school-age young players whose aspirations may be exclusively domestic (USL, MLS) are hesitant to pursue “soccer” in college following their HS senior year.

Gio Reyna, Stuttgart (5) Dortmund (1), Dortmund, Germany (12.12.20)

For some families, the decision to potentially forego a college “soccer” scholarship (either partial or full) and delay a college education to pursue the professional football dream is too risky, costly and not an option. On the other hand, for other families, it’s the most logical (and only) step forward as time is of the essence for young footballers. There is however, a third group who are indecisive and perhaps this post is geared towards them. Is a gap year following high school (HS) worth pursuing in order to persuade/dissuade them one way or the other? Below are some aspects to consider.

Physical/Mental

Some HS-age players may neither be physically/mentally ready for the rigors of college soccer or football professionalism. In college, competing against players up to four years older may not be the easiest transition. The physical/mental gap choosing the professional route may be similar in age but wider in experience and maturity.

Thus, having the player take a gap year to continue his development before embarking on the next endeavor could be very advantageous. After all, what’s wrong with bossing the game around for an additional year while building the player’s confidence? Well, it depends. So long as their game continues to be carefully nurtured, and evolving during the gap year. In the process, other opportunities could also become available.

Increased opportunities

Indecisive families who are not yet convinced about the college path and whose MLS or amateur club has not shown them a satisfactory path to football professionalism may opt to take a gap year to explore additional options that could result in new opportunities. Among those options are:

  1. Join the professional domestic market (USL) with an academy contract to maintain NCAA eligibility
  2. Attend domestic/international trials in different markets/clubs to set realistic expectations and for self-evaluation
  3. Practice and play in a semi-pro league to maintain NCAA eligibility, network, and gauge other football options in parallel
  4. Continue playing at the current club to maximize exposure to professional agents and college scouts/coaches
  5. Switch to a different non-MLS club (domestic or international) or vice versa (if not playing for an MLS club) to increase exposure to professional agents and college scouts/coaches
  6. Join a play football abroad (England, Spain, Germany, Italy) gap year program while earning college credits

2020 saw a dramatic increase of local gap year participants. In hindsight, the trend may have stemmed from a shorter 2019-2020 season which caused players to miss out on important youth tournaments such as Dallas Cup, GA Cup, DA/ECNL Showcases/playoffs, National League, etc. It wasn’t just missing out on participation in those tournaments but also the corresponding experience and exposure to professional agents/scouts/college coaches/etc. In most cases, players did not get a fair opportunity to draw enough interest from colleges or the professional ranks which incentivized them to take a gap year. Below you will find examples of recent local U-17 MNT pool players who are pursuing a variation of the five categories above:

  1. Bailey Sparks and Josh Ramsey left their longtime Solar club to give the USL-C (Sporting Kansas II and San Antonio FC) market a try respectively. Similarly, Kevin Bonilla returned from a short stint at the University of Portland to join USL-1 North Texas SC during his gap year
  2. Seth Wilson who once played for the MLS FCD academy went on a series of international trials. However, COVID may have temporarily cut his trials short during his gap year
  3. At present, Kevin, and Seth, have joined a local semi-pro league (La Roja League) for the winter along with many college players currently home for the break to remain active
  4. Cesar García, scheduled to join SMU soccer in the fall of 2020, is now back at the MLS FCD academy to increase his chances to professionalism or academia during his gap year
  5. Players like Johan Guereca and Riley O’Donnell left the longtime Solar academy powerhouse to search new opportunities at FCD academy in their last year eligibility
  6. Other players joined a gap year program in Valencia Spain last year

There is no solution that fits all. Each player is building their own path and we are all learning from each other. For most families, the ideal scenario could be to secure a college “soccer” scholarship during the senior HS year and prior to taking a gap year. This option allows a fallback plan in case one of the alternatives above (or others) does not materialize. If you are fortunate enough to secure a soccer college scholarship, be honest and transparent with the college staff about professional intentions.

Financial

Once/if a scholarship is secured and if professionalism does not become a viable option during the gap year, attend college with the scholarship and earn a life-lasting academic degree while still playing college soccer.

Sometimes a pathway to football professionalism will open up while playing college soccer: Reggie Cannon, Brandon Servania, Brecc Evans, etc. to name a few. After all, there are plenty of colleges or entire conferences (ex. Big10) which “guarantee” the athletic scholarship for life as long as the footballer leave the college for “a bona fide reason”. Do your research, there could be some caveats for this guarantee to apply. However, if you can make it work, the financial impact on your family could be significant.

Current club situation

Amateur clubs (ex. Solar, Texans) offer limited options to football professionalism. Staying a gap year at an amateur club may only increase opportunities to a wider gamut of college choices and not necessarily to football professional pathways. Taking a gap year to switch to play a full year at the U18/U19 level with an MLS club could be very attractive but risky nonetheless. You can read more about this possibility in a previous post. If a switch is made and the MLS path at the U18/U19 level doesn’t work out, keep in mind that the MLS club also limits the player contractually in terms of other domestic opportunities that could be pursued during the gap year. Some MLS clubs are very restrictive not allowing the player to trial with other clubs (domestic or internationally) even though the MLS club does not have any plans for such player. Amateur clubs will be more open to that possibility as they don’t have a path to professionalism.

On the other hand, if the player has been part of an MLS club and said club has not “shown any signs of a professional plan” by the time the player turns 16, the player is serving a unique purpose in the club: filler player. The family may want to explore other possibilities outside the MLS club immediately. Maybe one reason to stay with a prestigious MLS academy is for the college exposure; however, amateur clubs are not only less strict on pursuing parallel professional alternatives but offer more college showcase possibilities since they are family-funded.

Age

if there’s an aspiration to play in Europe at the U19 level as a stepping stone to a first team debut and the player is turning 18 years of age after the start of their HS senior year, it is not worth taking a gap year. The post September 1st (international transfer window deadline) birthday by itself complicates that possibility and staying an additional gap year further delays the move to a European market.

Foreign nationals (especially unproven young Americans) in Europe without a EU passport will find more scrutiny being recruited for a U23 or “B” team than for a U19 side. Goalkeepers (GKs) can find an easier pathway to a U23 or B team than a field player; however, the path to a regular-minutes first team usually takes longer for GKs. Historically, there have been a few exceptions: Casillas.

Football positions

Player positions matter when it comes to taking a gap year. Offensive players tend to have a faster route to professionalism than defensive players. A GK may very well be better served going to college right after HS and complete a degree in 3.5 years. GKs tend to have longer careers and very few become starters for first teams before the age of 22 (a college degree can be pursued during these years). Going to college immediately after HS will hardly impact their professional football aspirations. In fact, playing college, combined with a local league during their school breaks will keep them active year round. A similar reasoning could be drawn about defenders who tend to have longer careers than offensive players.

Football positions by number

In addition to gaining additional football experience and potential opportunities, with some planning and motivation, families/players can benefit from a gap year to save money, travel, volunteer, or do all of the above. Just be sure to have a plan around the objectives to be achieved during the gap year and adhere to them. In the end, whichever road you take, a gap year is the ideal time to think about short-term and long-term goals. Just make an informed decision, have no regrets, and enjoy the ride.

Lastly, this month we will likely reach the 10,000 visitors mark. We want to take an opportunity to thank you for reading us hoping that you continue to find our posts useful. As a token of appreciation, the first 10 readers to fill out & submit the form below will get a free Nike Men’s dri-fit shirt. Winners will be contacted via email. Thanks for your continued support. #theGomezway


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